The search for alternative products to wean the world away from its dependence
on petro-chemicals is an intensive and ongoing one, which takes many forms.
Researchers have explored many different avenues. However, one place the search
has led them to is perhaps more unexpected than many others: the slaughterhouse.
It may be a startling development, but waste from abattoirs could be an important
source of the plastics we all use in the future.
© Fotolia, 2012
Animals naturally contain substances known
as lipids – long, carbon-rich polymer molecules
that make an ideal building block for bioplastics.
It follows that the parts of animals, which do
not get used for food or other products, are
therefore a potentially valuable – but so far
untapped - resource.
An EU-funded project, ANIMPOL, established
at the beginning of 2010, has brought
together scientists from research institutes
and industry from seven European countries
with the objective of finding ways to make
the best use of these important biopolymer
molecules. In the past, they have simply been
Assisted by € 3 million of funding under the
EU's 7th Framework Programme, the three-year
project is aimed at maximising the potential
to use this animal waste and its by-products in order to produce both materials for
bioplastics, known as PHAs, and biodiesel.
Currently the amount of animal lipids being
discarded annually from slaughterhouses is in
the region of 500,000 tons. Together with the
estimated 300,000 tons of waste materials
from the biodiesel production, these materials
could be utilised for the biotechnological production
In addition, the project is investigating ways
of producing these plastics at an economically
viable cost, and then devising products
and establishing markets where they can be
It is estimated that as much as half a million
tons of these animal lipids are discarded every
year by the animal slaughtering industry.
As ANIMPOL's project co-ordinator, Dr Martin
Koller of the Graz University of Technology in
Austria puts it: "Nature creates polymers like
these lipids, as well as proteins, free of charge
– why should we incinerate them?"
In the process being developed by ANIMPOL,
fatty material is extracted from the animal
waste, analysed and converted into fatty acid
compounds. In turn, using a method pioneered
by the project team, these are separated into
saturated and unsaturated fatty acids. The
unsaturated fraction can be used to produce
high quality biodiesel, while the saturated
fraction can be biotechnologically converted
The production of biodiesel in this way is
similar to existing systems using recovered
waste fat and oils. Therefore, the ultimate key
for ANIMPOL will be its success in providing
added value through PHA production. In other
words, ANIMPOL polymers will - quite rightly
- have to prove their worth in economic value
terms against competing forms of polymer
production such as composting or anaerobic
Success is not guaranteed, therefore. Nevertheless,
ANIMPOL scientists are confident
that their project – which will also feature
life-cycle analyses, feasibility studies and
market research - will result in a variety of
novel, environmentally friendly, biodegradable
plastics that will meet clear industrial needs in
a realistic, value-adding manner.
Last but not least, ANIMPOL would also,
if successful, solve local waste problems
affecting locations around the entire EU.
At a time when the world seems increasingly
addicted to plastic, ANIMPOL offers clear
evidence that, with imagination and ingenuity,
mankind can make use of a wide range of
potential sources of biomass to generate
Never has it seemed more appropriate to
state that necessity is indeed 'the mother of